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ROME – In overwhelmingly Catholic countries, where the faith is woven into the warp and whoof of everyday life, it’s inevitable that what happens in and around churches will reflect the good, the bad and the ugly of the surrounding society, sometimes all at once.
So it was in Italy on Saturday, where at the same moment three parishioners were being honored in northern Italy for having used a defibrillator to save a life during Mass, at another Catholic parish in the southern part of the country, a defibrillator was being ripped off by as-yet unidentified thieves.
The presence of what are known as Automated External Defibrillators (AEDS) in public venues such as Catholic parishes has become increasingly common, seen as the most effective response to sudden cardiac arrest. The devices are designed to automatically apply electrical stimulation to restore a steady heart rhythm.
In the United States, for example, the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s Office of Risk Management recommends that every Catholic venue acquire, register and maintain an AED, noting that 95 percent of people who suffer cardiac arrest die before they reach a hospital or other source of help.
The life-saving potential of having a defibrillator handy was demonstrated recently in Legnano, a northern Italian town located about 20 miles northwest of Milan.
During a Mass at the local Holy Martyrs Catholic Church on July 3, a 75-year-old parishioner collapsed complaining of sharp chest pains. In response, three other people taking part in the Mass grabbed a defibrillator located in the church’s sacristy and applied it to the victim, steadying his heartbeat.
The 75-year-old was later transported to a local hospital, where, according to media reports, he recovered and is now doing well at home. The defibrillator used to save his life had been donated to the church in 2017 by a local business group.
On Saturday, a ceremony was held in Legnano to thank the three “guardian angels” – Paola Mustoni, a gynecologist at a local hospital; Lorenzo Colombo, a volunteer with the Red Cross; and Mario Schetter, a volunteer with Italy’s civil protection service.
“You don’t need to be afraid,” the three said in a joint statement. “The machine is safe, and it tells you exactly what to do. Every second counts.”
Later on the same day, however, the possibility of a similar life-saving act took a hit in the southern Italian town of Talsano, located in the Puglia region on the coast of the Ionian Sea.
On Saturday night, according to local reports, someone stole a defibrillator that had been placed on an exterior wall of the celebrated Church of Most Holy Mary of Mount Carmel, a 16th century structure, though the site is much older – local tradition actually has it that St. Peter himself celebrated the first Mass in the area there, with a column of rock believed to have been present at the time still preserved in one of the church’s side chapels.
A spokesman for a counselor to the regional president expressed “condemnation for the ignoble gesture” of the theft.
“Acquired with the offerings of the faithful of the Confraternity of Carmine in 2014, worth about $1,000, it’s an important instrument that can save human lives,” the spokesman said on behalf of Counselor Cosimo Borraccino.
“I hope that, thanks to the images captured by surveillance cameras in the square around the church, the culprits of this insane gesture can be identified. In the meantime, I address a heartfelt appeal to them to give it back.”
While the thieves having a sudden change of heart may seem a long shot, there was one note of hope Saturday as well, and it also happened in southern Italy, in this case in the city of Cosenza in the Calabria region.
There, a 19th century silver ciborium, referring to an ornate metal cup used to contain consecrated Eucharistic hosts, was returned to the Church of St. Nicholas of Mileto by a unit of the carabinieri, Italy’s military police.
The ciborium had been stolen by unknown thieves in 1979, meaning a full 43 years ago, but it remained on a database used by the carabinieri to monitor suspicious sales in pawn shops, antique stores, art auctions, and other venues where stolen items may appear.
The ciborium, which had been donated to the church by a local bishop, in 1824, is reported to be in good condition, and will now undergo light restoration.